The confusion surrounding Jews and Christmas may be due in part to the fact that Hanukah lands around the same time of year as Christmas, lending to the belief that the holidays have much in common.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Asking a Jew why they don’t celebrate Christmas is like asking a Chistian why they don’t celebrate Hanukah. Because it isn’t our religion.
Although Christmas is celebrated as a secular holiday with many modern traditions, it is a religious holiday with roots in Christianity.
Many Jews may participate in the office “Secret Santa” or give Christmas gifts to Non-Jewish co-workers, but come December 25 and you might find Jews at home eating Chinese food, at the movies, or engaged in a tense game of chess.
What Do Jews Do On Christmas?
It is almost a comical joke that Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas. The tradition began on the Lower East Side in Manhattan at the end of the 19th century, when Jewish and Chinese immigrants lived in close proximity. While most restaurants and stores were closed on Christmas, Chinese restaurants remained open, giving Jews a warm welcoming place to go.
Some Jews enjoy going out to see the Christmas lights on Christmas Eve, as they are simply a pretty sight to take in.
Other Jews work on Christmas like any other day, even helping their non-Jewish coworkers so they can stay home with their families..
There were times not too long ago when Jews and Christians did not live side by side in peace, and Christmas was a very tense time for Jews. They feared pogroms and violence from their non-Jewish neighbors, and so they stayed home on Christmas and did not go out in the streets..
Today, thankfully, Jews and Christians and other religions have the freedom to practice openly, and you’ll often see a Christmas tree next to a Menorah at the mall. It is a festive time of year, and we Jews can’t help but get into the spirit.
How Do Jews Celebrate Hanukah?
Hanukah is a beautiful holiday filled with light and good food, celebrated with family and friends. Presents are often exchanged, and fun games like dreidel are played.
Just like Christmas, Hanukah has evolved over the years to the more modern version that we celebrate today, with parties and gift exchanges.
At the root of it, Hanukah is a celebration of rededication, which is the meaning of the name. Many years ago, during one of the numerous oppressive exiles that the Jews suffered at the hands of other nations, the Greek empire ruled Israel.
They wanted to eradicate Judaism altogether, and forced the Jews to assimilate to their secular ways. Jews were not allowed to study Torah or practice Jewish law; they were made to secularize their names and mode of dress, and any Jews caught violating the laws were punished.
King Antiochus defiled the Jewish temple with Greek idols and unkosher animals. It was a very sad time for the Jews.
Then, a brave man named Mattityahu and his 5 sons started a small army to revolt against the Greeks. They called themselves the Maccabees, which stood for “Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem”, meaning "Who is like You, O G‑d." Mattityahu’s son Judah the Maccabee led an army of 40,000 men who fought the Greeks and won.
They took back the holy Temple and went about the task of cleaning it up of the Greek idols that defiled it, and building a new altar, which was dedicated on the 25th of Kislev, the first day of Hanukah.
The Jews needed to light the holy Menorah daily in the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple. But they did not find any jars of sealed pure oil. Then, they found only one.
The jar of oil miraculously lasted 8 days, exactly the time it took to get a new jar of pure olive oil.
Today, Hanukah is celebrated by lighting a Menorah — a 9 branched candelabra all 8 days of Hanukah, one light for each night and one for the Shamesh, the ‘helper’ candle — to commemorate the miracle of light.
We also eat fried foods like delicious latkes (fried potato pancakes) and donuts, give gifts or Hanukah ‘gelt’, Yiddish for money or coins, sing songs and play games.
This does seem very similar to some of the Christmas traditions, but we celebrate it for very different reasons.
What Should I Know About Hanukah?
Jews wish each other a ‘Happy Hanukah!’ or in Herew, ‘Chag Sameach!’ which means happy holidays and can be used for any holiday.
If you get invited to a Hanukah party, come on an empty stomach because you are sure to leave full. You’ll be greeted by jelly donuts, latkes, and maybe even brisket for Hanukah fare. You can bring a gift, but it is not mandatory (unless the invitation says to bring a gift).
Be ready to have fun and celebrate. There may be blue and white decorations, colors that have come to symbolize Jews an Israel. You might be invited to join a spirited game of dreidel- the game the Jews played long ago to fool the Greeks when they came around to check that the Jews weren't learning Torah.
It involves a spinning top with the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Shin on each of the 4 sides, which stands for ‘Nes Gadol Hayah Sham’, A great miracle happened there (in Jerusalem). In Israel, the dreidel will have the last letter as Peh, corresponding to P for Pah- meaning ‘here’, because the miracle occurred in Jerusalem itself.
Traditionally, the game of dreidel is played for money, and when you land on each of the letters another action is done. Nun- nothing happens. Gimmel- you get all the money in the pot. Hay- you get half the money in the pot. Shin- put two in.
Some people play dreidel with chocolate chips instead of money.
Holidays Are For Giving
One of the things that Hanukah and Christmas have in common is that they have both come to symbolize a time of charitable giving.
Christmas is a time of bringing joy to the world through caroling, volunteering at soup kitchens, and giving gifts to less-fortunate children and families.
Hanukah is a time to invite people into your home, and go out and light the menorah for crowds of people who may know nothing about their Jewish heritage. Children often go in groups to visit with and sing to the elderly, bringing them cheer and memories of their own Hanukah of their youth.
Giving gifts on Hanukah is a recent tradition which may have occurred to help Jewish kids feel less isolated from their non-Jewish counterparts. It is now an accepted part of Hanukah and looked forward to by kids and adults alike.
Gift-giving on Christmas and around the holidays is a tradition both secular and religious people participate in, and it has come to symbolize an act of love and appreciation. It is a nice tradition and one that will likely stick around.
But it is important to remember charity as well, that along with giving and receiving gifts, we teach children that giving to others who have less than us is the real lesson here.
No, Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, and Hanukah is not considered the Jewish Christmas. But we may have more in common than we think.
Hanukah has become a way to bring more light into the world, both physically by lighting candles and spiritually by helping and bringing joy to others.
And that is something that everyone can agree is a wonderful tradition indeed.Gift a Hanukah candle or buy one for yourself and enjoy the scent of Cinnamon & Sugar, like the warm powdery fragrance from a fresh Hanukah donut.